On Civil War Monuments and Tennis Players



RICHMOND — Behold the monument of the great Civil War general on horseback! And behold the monument of the great tennis player, apparently preparing to thrash some children with a racquet.

Lee monument
By coincidence, I found myself in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederacy, last weekend as the controversy over the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis simmers. So I took a morning to visit Monument Avenue, with its majestic monuments of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and Arthur Ashe.

In case you don't know, Ashe was an African-American tennis star, a Favorite Son of Richmond, and a late add-on to Monument Avenue. The other four guys were Confederate generals or, in the case of Davis, presidents.

Jarring, at least to this visitor. Very jarring, and also very understandable.

Ashe monument
I am a tennis fan, tennis player, and saw Ashe play in person a few times when he was in college and as a professional and many other times on television. He was unusually stylish, dignified, reflective, and good. He beat bratty Jimmy Connors when Connors was at the top of his game and Ashe looked like he was doing transcendental meditation on every changeover. Sportswriters had a field day with that one. In 1993, Ashe, 49, died of AIDS. He believed he contracted H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, through a transfusion of tainted blood during his second round of heart-bypass surgery in 1983.

He learned the game on the public tennis courts of Richmond when he was not allowed into the whites-only clubs. His monument went up in 1996, not without controversy over its appropriateness on Monument Avenue. The Lee monument was unveiled in 1890. The other generals got their due early in the 1900s, when the last of the Civil War veterans were dying. A final salute to the cavaliers who, according to historians, brought their soldiers to tears. At around the same time, the monument to Forrest, who fought mainly in and around Tennessee, went up in Memphis, but Jefferson Davis, notably, didn't get his Memphis monument until 1964.

Richmond went through some of the monument agonies Memphis is going through now. As a visitor, I found it convenient to see all the monuments on one street. I can see how placing a monument to Ashe somewhere else could have been perceived as a snub. But it also struck me as jarring, if only for a moment, in both its placement and pose, and probably as a journalist as much as a tourist. I have the same feeling about adding more statues to Forrest Park.

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